Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s by Ann Douglas. 606 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (paperback)
While the 1960s are associated with the counterculture, Ann Douglas makes the case in “Terrible Honesty” for the cultural breakthroughs that took place during the 1920s. Leading the charge were prominent black and white artists–a “mongrel” group that shook off a Victorian matriarchal culture and replaced it with a “terrible honesty.”
According to Douglas, the artists of the 1920s turned away from middle class piety, racism, and sexual repression. Freudian psychoanalysis, with its insistence on uncovering dark, unconscious forces, was a major influence on the era's moderns in their rejection of convention and flowery language.
These artists embraced an egalitarian, popular culture and recognized that African-Americans made major contributions to the nation’s original folk heritage. The figures in the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston and others, hoped that artistic accomplishment would pave the way toward greater acceptance of African Americans. While such hopes proved too idealistic, black achievements in literature, drama, jazz and the blues could not be denied. The blues in particular were an expression of skepticism against societal platitudes–and they were paralleled by the tough-minded literature of such white artists as Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker.
Douglas makes the connection between the cultural figures of the 1920s and later artistic innovations: bebop jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, Chicago electric blues, Beat literature, method acting, the New Journalism. “Terrible Honesty” is a detailed work, and at times it seems as if it loses the Manhattan focus to range over the entirety of American culture. But it makes a convincing, often fascinating study of the ways in which artists of varied backgrounds had a profound influence on each other and on the artistic life of the nation to this day.